Saturday, June 6, 2009


A couple of days ago I finished reading "The Crystal Cave", the first book in Mary Stewart's Arthurian quartet. I can't believe how much I enjoyed it. I should have known better than to doubt I would. After all, Mary Stewart has been one of my favorite authors since the mid-1960s, when I was a teenager.

However, I had become angry and disappointed with Ms. Stewart and refused to read her anymore when I found out she had, in beginning her Arthurian saga, changed her literary direction.

Let me explain. I first discovered Mary Stewart when one of my friends and her mother recommended "a great book" called "The Moon-Spinners". After I finished it, I wanted to read more of Ms. Stewart and looked for her books wherever I could find them.

This was not so easy at the time. I usually only had access to the small Crosby public library and the Crosby Rexall drugstore, which sold some paperbacks. Twice a year our family traveled to the "big city" of Minot, ND, where I was usually able to snag a couple of her books.

"The Moon-Spinners" was not Stewart's first book, but it was the one that made her so popular with Americans, because Walt Disney made it into a movie starring Hayley Mills and a movie tie-in edition of the book was released. (Please, please do not watch this awful movie. Poor Hayley Mills was terribly miscast in the role.)

For all its failings, however, the movie did expose Stewart to a wider audience, and the publishers brought out paperback editions of her previous books for American readers eager for more Mary Stewart.

As I grew older and joined book clubs, I was able to purchase her books in hardcover as they were released.

How I loved these modern mystery-suspense-romances. They were almost always written in first person from the point of view of a plucky, intelligent, capable heroine. These English ladies were no Gothic governesses, no wilting wildflowers dependent on a man to rescue them. However, there was always a man in the picture. He and the heroine would slowly fall in love while together solving the mystery. (These were certainly not bodice rippers.)

The one mystery which remained an enigma, and which I have never figured out no matter how many times I read "The Ivy Tree", was whether or not Annabelle was an imposter or the long-lost biological daughter!

Equally important to the story and the characters were the surroundings. Stewart took us to such exotic locales as the Pyrenees of France, the Lippizaner stables in Austria and the rugged Isle of Skye in Scotland. Some reviewers have said that her descriptions of the landscapes were so good that they overshadowed everything else. I never had that impression but do feel that this overwhelmingly evocative sense of place lent a great deal to the books. In fact, I was so intrigued by the magical Greek Isles of "The Moon-Spinners, "My Brother Michael" and "This Rough Magic" that my husband and I decided to honeymoon in Greece.

So, I continued to snap up every Mary Stewart book that came along, until "The Crystal Cave". For some reason, at the time I felt she had betrayed us faithful readers by delving into the great myth of Camelot: of Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. Why did she feel the need to re-work such old ground? I never even bothered to pick up one of these history/fantasy books and give it a try.

Eventually, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, Stewart again wrote books in the genre of her early novels, set this time closer to home in the British Isles: "Thornyhold," "The Stormy Petrel" and "The Rose Cottage". They were quite a disappointment to me, as I felt that Stewart had lost her edge.

"The Rose Cottage" was especially frustrating because it left the story hanging. Later I learned that my book club's edition had inadvertently left out the ending!! They did send me a revised copy, but I wasn't interested enough to re-read it.

As years went by without any taste of Mary Stewart, I decided to give the Arthurian saga a try, looking in used bookstores for copies. Recently, I finally found the last one I needed, which happened to be the first in the series.

Now I wonder why I had waited so long, for Pete's sake. "The Crystal Cave" is as good as any early Stewart novel. I should have known better. A good storyteller is a good storyteller no matter the subject.

"The Crystal Cave" focuses on Merlin, up to the time when Uther Pendragon rejects his bastard son Arthur. I can't wait to begin "The Hollow Hills", which, I assume, will start up with Merlin taking in the young Arthur.

Checking the web today, I was surprised to find that Mary Stewart is still alive. Born on Sept. 9, 1916, she will soon be 93 years old. Mary Stewart is not a literary pseudonym but her real name. Born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow, she was a university English language and literature professor until she married Sir Frederick Stewart of Edinburgh University in 1945. Now Lady Stewart, she taught school for about 35 years until retiring.

Having lost all the Mary Stewart books I had purchased in a home fire in 1982, I scoured used bookstores until I found them all again, either in hardcover or paperback. Looking at her bibliography today, I discovered two books I did not know about: "The Prince and the Pilgrim", which some lists group with her Arthurian saga, and "The Wind off the Stormy Isles", which was not published in the U.S. (And which I will not be getting anytime soon, as there are only two copies available, at outrageous prices.)

I highly recommend you look for some of Stewart's books too, either in used bookstores or on Aside from her children's books and poetry book, here's the list:

The Arthurian Books:

"The Crystal Cave"
"The Hollow Hills"
"The Last Enchantment"
"The Wicked Day"
"The Prince and the Pilgrim"

Romance-suspense-mystery novels and their locales:

"Madame, Will You Talk?" (France)
"Wildfire at Midnight" (Scotland)
"Thunder on the Right" (France)
"Nine Coaches Waiting" (France)
"My Brother Michael" (Greece)
"The Ivy Tree" (England)
"The Moon-Spinners" (Greece)
"This Rough Magic" (Greece)
"Airs Above the Ground" (Austria)
"The Gabriel Hounds" (Damascus)
"The Wind off the Stormy Isles"(The Canary Islands)
"Touch Not the Cat" (England)
"Thornyhold" (England)
"The Stormy Petrel" (Scotland)
"The Rose Cottage" (England)


Mhairead said...

Hi I just glanced through this quickly because I wanted to say thank you for reminding me of her and she IS BRILLIANT!! I will come back and read more carefully..oh yes such a wonderful writer. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think i've read any of them, may give her books a try. Hope you are well:-)

Rowan said...

I've read a couple of Mary Stewart's books in the past - I must admit that I loved Thorneyhold:) I didn't realise that she has written so many books, I was vaguely aware of the Arthurian books but haven't read any of them. I know my library has one or two though so maybe this summer would be a good time to put that right.

Leanne said...

julie, I have the Arthurian set in my library here, I loved them all.

Leanne x

gma said...

Great. I'll watch for her books both in the library and in used book stores.

Odette Bautista Mikolai said...

i should be rushing out to grab one of these..thanks!!!

Annie Jeffries said...

It's the darndest thing Julie that I've never read any Mary Stewart. I've known of her forever but just never fell into the embrace of her books. After reading this post, I will have to rethink this. Thanks for the easily accessed list. I'm sure the local Goodwill, etc, will have plenty of copies I can snap up.

Janet said...

I think I read a Mary Stewart book way back when but can't remember which one! I may have to give her another try since you gave her such a great recommendation.

When I find an author I like I have to read everything they write!

Kate Robertson said...


I grew up on Mary Stewart too. My first read was My brother Michael and have read most of her books. I only have read 2 of the Arthurian ones though. Maybe I need to add them to my list.


Casey said...

I love rediscovering authors and stumbling across books I've missed. I especially like finding them in used bookstores ~ I like to think of it as adopting someone's baby!

My first book I'll start reading once school is over is Maeve Binchy's newest one. I know it's fluff, but I love the way she writes and love Ireland! I can't wait!

Margaret's Ramblings said...

Mary Stewart has long been a favourite of mine. Fiona and I were talking about you this more as we had a cuppa in the garden and we wished that we could have shared it with you.

Take care

Mary said...

Hi Julie,

I can't remember how I found your blog, but I've enjoyed perusing your posts. We seem to share a few interests. I enjoyed your post (above) about old-fashioned garden flowers, and I had a very similar experience with reading Mary Stewart. I wonder if you have ever read any Juliet Marillier? I think you might like her work...

Shopgirl said...

I have a couple of places I can look for her books. I will give it a try...I haven't read anything of her's. You make them sound wonderful.
When you get a minute...I have started another blog. Since I have not done any crafting, I thought this might be a good time to share of things about me.
We have had a cooler spring also. I am sure heat will come and it will stay awhile.
My lavender is looking really beautiful. Your, Mary

Fi from Four Paws and Whiskers said...

Not sure about that last title - but i have read them all - some many times....
and I started with the Crystal Cave... so never experienced the loss you felt!

Wonderful writer - I particularly loved Madam, Will you talk, and Touch Not the Cat, and Nine Coaches Waiting...

I saw a reminder of her in this post of mine
... look for the flagstone picture...

Found you through Odette...

Unknown said...

Ahh, Mary Stewart! I read my first Mary Stewart when I was 12 and have read and re-read my hardcover collection countless times through the years.

Recently, while looking for something new to listen to as I work (I'm an artist), I've started listening to Mary Stewart's audio books.

Letting my creativity flow as I listen to these beloved stories (though I feel I know some of them word-for-word) is absolute bliss!

I love the Arthurian series (I'm sort of an Arthurian nerd) and I'm glad to hear you're finally treating yourself to these great, and very unique, retellings of the legends!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday!
I love Mary Stewart!

Anonymous said...

Mary Stewart's books have been the most formative books in my life, believe it or not.

I read my mother's copy of "The Hollow Hills" in 4th grade - it was my first "grown-up" novel, and even though I didn't understand all of the nuances, it fascinated me.

I read all of her romance novels in those difficult middle and high school years - it didn't matter that the local boys never noticed me when I could fantasize about heroes like Raoul in Nine Coaches Waiting!

Then, when I was a senior in high school, Stewart published "The Last Enchantment." I read the entire Merlin series and wrote my senior English essay, a comparison of Stewart and Malory. That essay led to my placement in a distinguished university honors program, where I designed an independent major in medieval literature and, my senior year, studied medieval literature and archaeology at Glasgow University. While there, a friend noticed the Hildebrand calendar pictures of the Merlin books that I'd plastered on the dorm walls. She offered to introduce me to Lady Stewart, whom her mother knew...and on a tour of the area they pointed out her house. I was too shy to follow through on the offer of an introduction (darn it). But I did send the one and only fan letter of my life to the address that they shared with me, and Lady Stewart sent me an incredibly gracious, handwritten note in response. I wish I still had it, but the @#$% U.S. post office lost it with several of my books when I was sending them to UCLA - the graduate school that awarded me a full ride as a doctoral student in medieval literature ... all because I read "The Hollow Hills" in the 4th grade.

I was infuriated by a line in a recent Nora Roberts novel, "Who reads Mary Stewart anymore?" I have, do, and shall, God willing, until I'm as old as Lady Stewart!

Karily Parke (pen name ... because after agent requests for my own romance novel, I plan on being published one day, too! Guess who I'll dedicate the first book to? :D).

bellamima said...

Mary Stewart's books have seen me through some difficult times ever since I read "Nine Coaches Waiting." After living in Europe for 4 years, I read for the recollection of place, about once a year, her descriptions of France, the views into the open shops of pyramids of oranges, the light shining on the wet streets. Because of "This Rough Magic" I became interested in what are called "old roses" and wound up with over 30 varieties. (I adore the exchange between brother and sister when he tells her, after she has excoriated him for letting the bad guy escape, words to the effect "You wanted his heart; I have roasted it for you.") I named my son Michael Gabriel -- mostly, after the archangels, but also because of "My Brother Michael." Her books have afforded me some of the scariest moments in reading -- the scene (in Nine Coaches Waiting) in the forester's hut, when the heroine is hiding with her 9-yr-old charge, and his foot scrapes across the floorboards of the loft as the pursuer listens below. The scene in the fog in "Thunder on the Right." I love equally the midnight feast in "Nine Coaches Waiting" of the description of being danced by Raoul out through the French doors, through light and dark, onto the patio. Cinderella and Jane Eyre, and SO well done! The scene in "The Crystal Cave" in which the very young Merlin is crawling through the hypocaust and looks up through a break at the sky. "The Ivy Tree" so perfectly describes how failed love can lead to years of estrangement from loved ones. I love it that she actually thought of what it must be like to be the son of Arthur, and to try to imagine what leads up to the awful moment when father and son inadvertently go to war against each other. Finally, I love how literate her books are, and how gallant and courageous her heroines are. These are women worth emulating, and it is too dreadfully bad that more young women don't read Mary Stewart now.

Anonymous said...

I have read and re-read the Merlin books so many times since the '70s that I'm sure I could recite them. Fantastic literature from a truly great author. In case you were looking for any more information on Mary Stewart I ran across this fan site...

Sheila said...

I am a lifelong bibliophile.I discovered Mary Stewart in my early twenties when I stumbled across The Hollow Hills and I was immediately enthralled. I have read The Crystal Cave at least 50 times and the others in the first-person Merlin trilogy nearly as often.I reread the entire series at least two or three times a year. The detail is so rich, and the story has so much breadth and depth, that I always find something new when I read them. I love The Wicked Day too, although it took some getting used to, as it's told in third person and not in Merlin's voice. The Prince and the Pilgrim is very good, too, and I would love to see even more Arthurian books from Lady Stewart (although I realize how unlikely it is that there will be any more.)

If I were to be stranded on a desert island wit only five books and no hope of rescue, three of those books would be Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy.